The Threat to American Unity on Columbus Day

Grazie Christie | October 9, 2017 | 3:00pm EDT
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Christopher Columbus statue vandalized. (WXYZ-TV Detroit | Channel 7 YouTube Screenshot)

As Columbus Day is upon us, it seems too much to hope that modern-day iconoclasts will respect the statues of the celebrated explorer as well as the feelings of those who are proud of his contribution and their shared heritage. Vandals did not respect the memory of another Catholic figure from the Spanish conquest, St. Junipero Serra, whose statue in California was recently decapitated and splashed with lurid red paint, to the dismay of Latinos and Catholics everywhere.  Vandalism of Columbus statues will have similarly dark effects.  The vandals who act in the name of protecting modern sensibilities from past sins are sowing hurt and resentment with their attacks, causing injuries that divide along ethnic and religious lines, and threatening American pluralism.  

St. Junipero Serra, who founded nine missions in California in the 18th Century, was described by Pope Francis as a holy man who valiantly defended “the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”  And that is the way he is venerated today by Catholics and Latinos, as one who softened and mitigated the Spanish conquest by proclaiming and embodying the Christian message of the radical equality of the races.  Accounts of his heroic efforts to aid the natives are legion, and his figure creates unity across racial lines, resisting and combatting the acrimony of identity politics. 

The decapitation of his statue was intended to have the opposite effect, and was done on the principle of division between the descendants of either the conquered or conquerors.  This makes no practical sense for Latinos, whose rich racial heritage usually includes both groups.  As an attack on the statue of a saint, the vandalism was also an act of anti-Catholic bigotry and intolerance, and is being investigated as a hate crime.  In short, it was a violent blow against peaceful pluralism and mutual respect.  

Attacking Columbus statues and canceling Columbus Day parades are similar assaults on societal unity.  They create division between the wider culture and Italian-Americans who are, of course, proud of the Italian man’s daring courage and his place in history.  This extends to Latinos as well, who are similarly proud and claim Cristobal Colón as theirs.  He sailed under the Spanish flag on ships famously provided by the Catholic king and queen of Spain after failing to find patronage in Italy.  Without this feat and the subsequent Spanish colonization of the New World, the Western Hemisphere would not bear the imprint of Hispanic culture and civilization as it does.  As such, Columbus is a symbol of Latino heritage up and down the Americas.  There is no upside for Hispanics in the attacks on Columbus.  We don’t want or need to be divided into descendants of the conquered versus the conquerors.  We can be proud of both and preserve our unity. 

The statue-topplers also threaten unity among Americans of differing faiths.  Although only 28 percent of Americans have a negative view of Columbus, approval is even higher among Catholics.  He is, after all, a famous Catholic figure whose daring adventure sparked a cultural revolution by connecting two hemispheres for the first time.  Many Catholics are also aware that modern attacks on the explorer’s image are often motivated by radical activists who seek to rewrite history according to their own (anti-colonialist) agenda.  The attacks are nothing new.  In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan strongly agitated against Columbus for being Catholic, Italian, and sailing for the Catholic king and queen of Spain. 

Americans don’t have to be Catholic, Latino, or of Italian descent to be personally affronted by the vandalism that threatens the hundreds of statues of Christopher Columbus across the U.S.  He was audacious and intrepid, a man well ahead of his time. His dangerous journey across the wild ocean originated the societies of the Western Hemisphere and changed the course of world history.  Anyone with an ounce of imagination and historical perspective is bound to admire him.  

But even if the statue-topplers are short on imagination and perspective, are unable to appreciate the contribution of historical figures like San Junipero and Christopher Columbus, they should refrain from vandalism in the interests of American pluralism and social cohesion.  Defacing the image of another’s hero is a grave offense, and delicacy and gentility prohibit the toppling of other people’s totems.  

And where would it end? Where is the hero or heroine who can survive the narrow rules and the fierce intolerance of the new iconoclasts?  Any perfect “hero” memorialized today will be sure to run afoul of rapidly changing liberal orthodoxies as soon as next week.

Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie is a Senior Policy Advisor for The Catholic Association.


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